Fight the Power
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
A conversation with Christia Mercer.
By Mariam Elnozahy
Christia Mercer, Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, has been at Columbia for 20 years, and served as chair of Literature Humanities from 2010-2014. In June, she helped organize the Radical Pop-Up Schools initiative in Harlem, offering free discussions and lectures. She teaches Lit Hum in prison as the first professor at Columbia to volunteer in the Justice-in-Education Initiative, sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Justice, and has written about these experiences, and in favor of prison divestment, in the Washington Post. On campus, she is also involved in the student group FLIP (First Generation Low-Income Partnership). Her Twitter bio (@christiamercer) describes her as a ‘sometimes activist.’
The Blue and White: My first question is: Why do you invest so much energy in rethinking education systems?
CM: One of the things that is very moving to me is the fact that there are two institutions in the US that have the vast majority of people between the ages of 18 and 22. One of them is higher education and the other is the prison industrial complex. For those of us in the university in that age group to not think about that other institution is to miss something important. I’m concerned about the fact that the Core Curriculum at Columbia is about the transformation of ideas and literature in Lit Hum, and in political thinking in CC, and so little time is spent thinking about people who are powerless, both in the books and also in contemporary American culture. Geraldine Downey—who’s in the Psych Department and is one of the main organizers of the Justice-in-Education Initiative—came to me about including topics about justice in the Core. As a result of the Justice Initiative this year, instructors in CC will be encouraged to focus on issues to do with justice. But it’s true that our position as privileged people and the way we fit into American culture is not given enough analysis.
B&W: You wrote an article in the Washington Post about teaching the Oresteia in prison versus at Columbia. One set of students sees themselves as the rightful recipients of that knowledge and one has been denied it. How can you make sense of and traverse these two spaces?
CM: One of the assumptions generated by the discourse of higher education is that we are the inheritors of this tradition and are given it and have to treat it with great care. But for me what is the most powerful thing about the Core, and I really pushed this when I was chairing Literature Humanities, is to make it clear that we’re not inheriting anything that’s a given. We are asked to create our own version of the past, and these books that are considered great because they’re books that every subsequent generation has talked about. For example, there’s something about the Aeneid that has struck a long series of generations of readers.
The problem is those readers are almost always privileged white guys who have often read the books from their perspective of power and privilege. It’s only really in the USA in the 20th century when the opportunity has thrust itself upon us to critique these books from the perspective of less powerful people. So one of the incredible things about the Aeneid or the Oresteia is that it’s really about power and justice and revenge, and how women are forced to negotiate the power dynamics they’re left out of. A book like the Oresteia is perfect for prison. Because it’s about exactly the topics that all of the people who are incarcerated, especially women, are most moved by. In a way that I hadn’t even foreseen, it was a perfect thing for them to read.
The success of teaching the Lit Hum books in prison makes it clear that those courses are not for the privileged few, they’re for everyone, and that’s something that we should be more aware of when we teach our core courses. We should recognize that our interpretations and analyses of them should be based on the perspective of our students while taking them seriously. Every generation has to recreate the Core and we’re just coming up with a new interpretation that’s more radical and more appropriate for our times. I learned from my incarcerated students that a group’s experience of power, violence, and justice deeply affects its readings as well.
B&W: Do you have any specific anecdotes about the differences between teaching incarcerated students and Columbia students?
CM: As soon as you walk onto Columbia’s campus you carry with you the years of experience of being active learners. And the thing about my incarcerated students is that almost all of them have been very seriously abused. They’ve had to keep their heads down often to make it. Often they’ve been caught in criminal circumstances because they’ve just been trying to navigate the horrors. And then they get in prison, where the whole attitude is not to be an agent. I was immediately struck by how difficult it would be for someone like me, or anyone of us here, who’s used to analyzing and critiquing—I could easily imagine some CO [Correctional Officer] to go jump in the lake, or some other stronger language, and that would get me in trouble. You critique the wrong CO’s argument and you can wind up in solitary confinement. So what’s really important about the class that I taught in prison is to create a space where students feel comfortable being agents and active learners. The difference is not so much in insight. Of course our students in prison have not had the opportunity to develop their reading and writing skills as much, but they’re astonishingly morally insightful, partially because they’re older and they’ve suffered more.
B&W: I wanted to talk about campus activism, and the relationship between professors and students with regards to social justice initiatives. Do professors respond to activism? How should that relationship work?
CM: What I’ve learned over the past few years is that even progressive faculty are not as eager as I think they should be to know about the details of students’ lives. And I don’t mean like what’s going on in the dorm room. I mean the ways that Columbia mistreats—does not treat students as well as it should.
Often faculty kind of think certain activities should be left to the students, and we miss the fact that students could benefit from a little advice from what we’ve learned over the years. With faculty it’s like, ‘Let’s just talk about things, we’re academics after all, let’s have another panel conversation about justice.’ Panels are good, but they’re just people talking to one another. Often, it’s like preaching to the choir. And at one point we need to act. Faculty don’t recognize that by acting they can help students in some profound ways.
But I also learned, actually in a panel discussion in April, that students think that professors know a lot more about their lives than we do. You come into my class for 2.5 hours a week and even if I’m just giving a lecture there’s an assumption that professors just know students, if not the individual than the kind of community. And we don’t know anything unless you tell us. I was really changed when I started chairing Lit Hum. It became very clear to me the degree to which students are really taken advantage of, if not abused in certain ways, at Columbia, and nobody knows it except the students.
The admin isn’t going to do anything, at least under the current regime of Jim Valentini—I think Peter Awn is a great guy by the way, but Jim Valentini is obviously no longer capable of catering to students. An important example, and something I wrote about in a piece for the Washington Post, is that low-income students are misled to believe they won’t have fees when they do. They’re led to believe that they will have money to live when they won’t. Very few faculty members know how bad things are because nobody tells them. Students have finally begun to speak out— including to Dean Jim Valentini who seems incapable of hearing what they say. I do believe Jim Valentini means well, but he just doesn’t get it and the people who are now advising him are as blind as he is to the relevant issues. Students have told me over and over again how clueless he is, even those who have tried to work with him. So no wonder so few students gave to the senior fund last year. Students—especially Muslim students and students of color—rightly feel that no one is listening to them. Students are eager to act and should, but I would like to suggest that they get support and institutional knowledge from faculty. If faculty don’t encourage students and support students, then I think certain progressive activist projects are not going to be as successful.
B&W: Students also cycle out every 4 years, and professors have the privilege of institutional memory and could therefore do so much more.
CM: There should be a structure. An institutional model should set up where students apprentice the next generation of students. Admin is counting on the fact that students are really eager and have a lot of ideas, and by the time they listen to what they actually have to say and do all the grunt work surrounding that—they graduate! and they’re gone.
When I was chairing Lit Hum, the psych service people came over and talked about their services and how great they were and how they’re 24 hours a week, and yada yada yada, and how if there’s a student in our class and she’s facing difficulties, we could get easily help. We were like, “Wow, are they organized!” The very next day there was a preceptor sitting on that couch you’re in now, talking to me about a student who was having a meltdown—a low-income student’s brother had just been arrested. I don’t remember the details, but it was gruesome. We tried to find a number on the website she could call, and it was a really nice website with attractive pictures and bios of all the pleasant people who worked there but there was no information about where to go or what to do if you were an instructor and worried about a student. I was just furious, but we were out of time at some point. I went home that night around 8:30 and called the emergency number that we had been told to call, and was put on hold with a bunch of people until finally we found a woman in Texas who said she was representing Columbia and Bernard. She mispronounced it. That’s such a good example of how everyone at Columbia means well but nothing is executed properly. And students should just make a fuss about that.
Or Suzanne Goldberg [the President’s special advisor on sexual assault, appointed in Fall 2014]. The first meeting she had with a lot of survivors and other people in the fall at a discussion sponsored by IRWAGS, she’s been special advisor for a few months and is proudly telling us all about the work she and her staff had done to make it easy for survivors of assault to get information and advice. She says we have this 24 hour, seven days a week blah blah blah, all you have to do is go on our website. I went on my phone and typed in “sexual assault” to the Columbia website, and I pulled up a PDF that was several years old. Because when they say 24 hours a day seven days a week, I know not to believe them, I learned my lesson from psych services. I raised my professorial hand and announced that their advice didn’t seem to be available at that very moment, and she said, Well it’s on the page entitled “Sexual Respect.” Really? You or a friend has just been assaulted and you’re supposed to find help on a page called “Sexual Respect”? It’s absurd.
So who is this for? It’s for Suzanne Goldberg and her well-intending clueless assistants and the administration! And all it takes is a faculty member like me to join the students to say this is not acceptable. When students and faculty get together things change. I really bonded with faculty over this new set of regulations that puts the onus on faculty and takes it off the administration. I said I’m not following these regulations, and I basically told the people, “So fire me, because I’m a senior professor”—what are they gonna do. What we’ve decided to do, instead of flouting the rules, we’re gonna circumvent them legally. We’ve both become ministers of the Universal Church, which protects us. If we’re ministers we don’t have to report anything. Anything a student reports to a minister in confidence is confidential. What we’re doing now is staging a protest where we’re gonna try to get a bunch of faculty to become ministers so that we don’t have to follow the rules. And by the way, those rules aren’t legally required—Suzanne Goldberg admitted in the fall that they’re interpreting Title IX in a way that they don’t have to do. They’re saying that Title IX requires this when it doesn’t. But if you get faculty and students talking to one another they can join together to change something that is inappropriate and bad for students.
B&W: And it kind of feels like a less isolating place. The people in positions of power—administrations and professors—feel very distant for us students. It seems like the only place you can go and be productive is in the basement of the Intercultural Resource Center with everyone’s phones switched off so nobody’s tapping into the conversations. There’s a culture of intimidation that goes beyond just policy— a huge fear of surveillance and feeling like you’re being watched. You become so focused on evading the administration that it becomes circuitous.
CM: So the thing is you have to create ways to feel protected. And how can you feel protected? Well, you get some pretty powerful faculty and maybe even have a couple friends from the law school—I can name some names now but I won’t—and people who would be very, very eager to be a part of something.
In terms of students beginning at Columbia, it would be really great for them to know that activism is one of the great parts of Columbia’s history. Most students don’t know that the apartheid divestment campaign at Columbia was profoundly important. Columbia was the first university to divest from South Africa in the 1980s. It was led mostly by students of color and it was a project that engaged a lot of students. And Columbia was a leader in the nation. The recent Black Lives Matter movement here and the Student Prison Divest stand as examples of the energy on campus that is recreating Columbia’s history.
Compared to our peers, as the deans like to say, there’s a lower endowment, but there’s an amazing history of activism on this campus—and Columbia students ought to own that. I mean one of the reasons Columbia doesn’t have a huge endowment is because in the past they let in poor students, in the ’30s and ’40s they let in Jews—My God, Jews!—in Brooklyn. Princeton didn’t let Jews in until the ’60s or ’70s. There were poor people who couldn’t give back a lot of money, but they became activists in ’68 and in Apartheid. Students should know and read about the history of activism that cuts through Columbia University.
B&W: In an article you wrote on the Radical Pop Up Schools initiative, you quoted DuBois saying, “The function of the university [is] above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.” Last year, Nicholas Dirks argued that the University should be a place for “civility” and “civilized” discourse. Do you see civilization as a goal for the university?
CM: While Dubois is wonderful, the word civility bothers me—but I think DuBois was using that word in the context of a letter to a young black woman who has foregone her commitment to education, so I think the idea there is that the only way for a child of recent slaves to do anything is to think in terms of being ennobled. For me, I wouldn’t use the word civility and I wouldn’t use the word civilization. I want to think about how each generation can commit itself to the best of its community—whatever that means, and we could debate that. I think some students would say—perhaps too many Columbia students would say—is what that means is perhaps making money, having a fast car or a nice penthouse. I would hope that students who came out of my Lit Hum class would have been able to learn how to critique that, at least superficially. Columbia students in my mind are committed to imagining a better world and their contribution to it. And Columbia in particular, unlike Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford now, really has this noble history of committing itself to justice and its goal has been often reimagining justice. I think Columbia students are so inclined, we just need to actualize that potential.
B&W: We being?
CM: All of us. Students, faculty, administrators. Honestly, what we need is a dean of Columbia College, and leadership at the College, who understands the potential of Columbia in this way and is willing to listen to students and encourage this proper reimagining of our futures. The trustees are a group of people who have made a huge amount of money, and a lot of them are good guys, but they’re often people who went to Columbia College, and they really mean well but they want what’s prominent or sexy, and they want to be able to promote Columbia. One of the reasons I wrote the Pop-Up schools article the way I wrote it is because I want the trustees to see that and feel good about themselves for supporting that decision. If students knew how to tap into them and push their buttons, then more money would be spent for internships for low-income students, for example. All kinds of money will come out of the sky.
I know these trustees, and I actually talk to them a lot and get lunch with them occasionally. Those kinds of people would love to talk to students, but students can’t complain. They don’t want complaints. They don’t want faculty complaining. So the rhetoric has to be that Columbia has to be a leader and an innovator and blah blah blah. It’s really important to get the presentation right, especially when we go to the deans.
I think that there is a really important contradiction to point out, which is that all of these Ivy-type schools are very committed to having a diverse set of students in terms of ethnicity, class, geography (I think it’s important to have people from farmland Ohio) because it changes the conversation, and it makes the conversations better when people have really different takes on things. But despite this commitment to diverse student bodies, we just completely abandon the low-income, first-gen students who want to come here when they walk through the door.
I know from a couple of my own students who receive absolutely no support from their family that they could not pay fees that suddenly appeared when they arrived on campus. They almost had to leave Columbia. There are students who run out of meal-card swipes before the end of the semester because they have to consume all their meals on campus, and who select courses based on the cost of books. A sizable percentage of the 120 students in my Philosophy and Feminism course last fall confessed to be humiliated when they arrived here by how much pressure was put on them to spend more money than they had. It is wrong to attract students and not help them navigate life here more easily. Since the deans ignore the problem, it will only be solved when students and faculty pressure the administration.
B&W: This is The Blue and White’s Orientation issue. Do you have any parting kernels of advice for new students?
CM: Just to realize sooner how much power students have when you face a stupid Columbia problem—and you will. My main words of wisdom would be you have a lot more power than you think, and all you need to know is how to organize and know how to wield it.